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What Might Have Been: Michigan Week

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I Guess We’ll Have to Wait to Wreck the Wolverines

1992 Rose Bowl: Washington Huskies v Michigan Wolverines Photo by Bernstein Associates/Getty Images

It’s a real bummer that this isn’t the eve of the 2020 Husky football season. Its even more disappointing that we are missing out on what’s been penciled in for years as the biggest home opener in a decade, and open against a team that we have so much history with. That’s all been harped on enough already. What hasn’t been discussed enough is that we had a real shot at earning a win over the Wolverines that should’ve put the college football world on notice, not unlike our dominant 2016 conference opener over Christian McCaffrey’s Stanford team.

Much like Chris Petersen’s tenure on Montlake, Jim Harbaugh has achieved tremendous success at Michigan without ever truly breaking out like his reputation would have suggested. The biggest difference between Petersen’s Huskies and Harbaugh’s Wolverines has been that Michigan has been buoyed by the strength of the Big Ten. As such, a win over Michigan would’ve jump started the Jimmy Lake era on Montlake. An objective look at both teams would have discovered that both are facing significant turnover at critical positions, a transition of philosophy & system on offense, dominant defenses, and similarly elite talent waiting in the wings. With so many similarities, our Huskies really shouldn’t be considered under dawgs (yes, I just made that joke).

New Faces on Offense

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: APR 27 Washington Spring Game Photo by Joseph Weiser/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

As I mentioned above, both teams would be heading into this game with huge question marks at many spots on offense, but I believe UW has the better overall situation. Both teams lost talented, yet somewhat underwhelming starting QBs this past off-season in Jacob Eason and Shea Patterson, but both teams would’ve had to settle stacked QB competitions. UW would’ve had to seen a three-way battle RS-So Jacob Sirmon, RS-Fr Dylan Morris, and super-super-senior transfer Kevin Thomson (incoming freshman Ethan Garbers would technically be in the competition, but isn’t seen as a likely starter vs. Michigan). On Michigan’s side, RS-Jr Dylan McCaffrey and RS-So Joe Milton would’ve been vying for the lead role. Interestingly enough, our Huskies, on balance, have the more talented QB room with Sirmon (0.9559) and Garbers (0.9304) being rated more highly than either of the Michigan QBs, and Morris also being ranked higher than Joe Milton. Michigan seems to have the experience advantage with McCaffrey being a 4th-year player that’s seen significant snaps, but Kevin Thomson is also a proven commodity at the FCS-level who could be trusted to manage the flow of the game.

Michigan State v Michigan Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Outside of QB, UW also has the advantage along the line of scrimmage. While we need to replace both tackles and an all-conference center, Michigan is replacing 4 of their 5 OL starters. Both teams have stocked deep and talented OL rosters over the last four classes with Michigan getting the slight edge with 11 blue chip OL between 2017-2020 to UW’s 8. However, Jaxson Kirkland being an all-conference level starter, despite his 3-star recruiting rating, off-sets some of the talent discrepancy, as well as our 63 to 12 edge in returning starts along the OL. At the end of the day, you can only play five guys on the line at a time, and I’ll give the edge to our potential five over Michigan’s every day of the week.

At the remaining skill positions, Michigan takes the edge by a narrow margin. Despite losing the uber-talented lead duo of Donovan Peoples-Jones and Tarik Black, Michigan returns slot receiver Ronnie Bell, who quietly led the team in receiving last year. Bell will be joined by 5th year tight end Nick Eubanks, and a bevy of blue chip talent that should at least maintain the talent level across the receiving corp. The Wolverines also return the loaded backfield trio of Zach Charbonnet, Hassan Haskins, and Chris Evans who combine for 3,000+ yards of career rushing (mind you, Charbonnet and Haskins are entering their second seasons). On Washington’s side, we also return a talented, yet unproven WR room, and we are pinning our hopes of replacing Salvon Ahmed’s 1,000 rushing yards on Richard Newton, who broke out last year despite being hampered by injuries. While we don’t have the same mix of talent and experience across the skill positions, the group of Puka Nacua, Richard Newton, Cade Otton, and Terrell Bynum is at least comparable in terms of proven on-field production.

Offenses in Transition

Penn State spring football game Abby Drey/Centre Daily Times/Tribune News Service via Getty Images

The John Donovan hire has been dissected a million different ways (I’ve written a couple breakdowns of his offenses here and here), but we aren’t the only ones going through an offensive transition. Josh Gattis is heading into his second year as the Wolverine’s offensive coordinator, and he is dragging Michigan tooth and nail into the spread RPO era of offense. Gattis’ #SpeedInSpace mantra that is the exact opposite of Harbaugh’s trademark ground ‘n pound-west coast offenses, so there has been a fairly slow learning curve in adjusting to a new style of offense. Late in the 2019 season, the offense began to find its footing within Gattis’ system, but the roster is still evolving to match his vision. Michigan’s roster talent was always at a high enough level where most offensive schemes would’ve been successful, but adding younger speedsters, like Roman Wilson, will help shift towards the more wide open offense.

The key to Gattis’ offense clicking next year will be finding a trigger man at QB that can play point guard distributing the ball to all their talent. QBs in RPO-heavy offenses need to have skill sets more similar to option QBs than the traditional pocket-passing QBs due to all the quick decision making and ball handling (it’s a lot harder than you think). Add on the fact that many RPOs require the QB to be mobile, and you have a very specific profile of player that may or not be on the roster.

Donovan, on the other hand, is undertaking a less significant overhaul of the UW offense. The Huskies have always been a multiple offense with many different concepts in their playbook, so instead of a “strip to the studs” overhaul of the offensive philosophy, roster, and playbook, Donovan’s challenge will be identifying his playmakers, paring down the playbook to a selection of concepts that best showcase our talent, and then coach up the nuances that separate college and professional offenses. A smoother transition to Donovan’s offense should help mitigate the one-year head start that Michigan has on their own transition, but at this point no one can be certain if either offense will be able to hold their own against both team’s dominant defenses.

A Battle of Two Top-5 Defensive Coordinators

Ohio State State v Michigan Photo by Leon Halip/Getty Images

Defense is where both Washington and Michigan would have tried to win the game, and it all starts with the men in charge. Any list of top defensive coordinators in college football would have to include Don Brown and Pete Kwiatkowski (I have 1. Brett Venables, 2. Pete Kwiatkowski, and 3. Don Brown, now that Dave Aranda is the HC at Baylor). Both have a history of fielding objectively dominant defenses (Kwiatkowski has 4 top-10 S&P+ defenses in his last 7 years as exclusive play caller and Brown has 3 in the last 5 years), but how the two go about executing their defensive systems diverge.

Unlike Kwiatkowski, Brown’s defenses are built using a 4-3 framework. Generally speaking, Brown’s defensive fronts tend to be more aggressive and use more one-gap penetrators than Kwiatkowski’s. This mixes well with Brown’s aggressive, blitz-heavy play calling, but it also capitalizes on some of the more elite personnel along his DL. At the second level, Brown adapted to the modern trend of base nickel defenses by going for a hybrid safety/LB approach that essentially downsized his “Sam” LB. By comparison, Kwiatkowski essentially eliminated one of the LB spots and went with a full-time cover DB in the slot. This is a more specialized approach, but it works within the Cover 1 and Cover 3 shells that we prefer since we get also get the extra body in the box.

Either method works, but we have been more inclined to play lock down defense than we are to play more aggressive pressure defense. Playing against a Michigan team with an inexperienced receiving corp and a relatively experienced QB, our coverage defense may be more effective since pressure is less likely to rattle the QB. Michigan’s approach may also be effective against our QB, who would most likely have been inexperienced in live reps. The real wild card would’ve been Kevin Thomson, who’s dual-threat athleticism and greater experience in live reps may have allowed him to elude the waves of Wolverine rushers or break contain to land a knock out blows downfield. I guess we’ll never get to find out if we had the answers to Brown’s defense.

Final Predictions

This one would probably have been a tight, low-scoring affair, and more likely than not, the turnover margin would’ve been the deciding factor. With so many new starters in both offenses, there’s no guarantee that even a simple and conservative game plan could be executed 100% of the time, and with such strong defenses ready to pounce on any mistake, there’s just no room for error. I really do think that Kevin Thomson could’ve made a difference in the abbreviated off-season that we were expecting a couple of months ago, so I’ll stick to that line of thought. If he was the starter, I’d give us at least a 50/50 shot in this game...

However, at this point, I can say whatever I want since I’m guaranteed to not be wrong, so I’ll be going with...

Washington - 70

Michigan - 0

(or the more likely...)

Washington - 20

Michigan - 17